Julie Guthman on the affordability of alternative food

Julie Guthman writes,

[T]hrough its abiding support of producers who employ more sustainable methods, the alternative-food movement creates a problem of affordability–by design. Among food writers there is some shame about this. Pollan writes in In Defense of Food, “Not everyone can afford to eat high-quality food in America, and this is shameful; however, those of us who can, should.” James McWilliams, the author of Just Food, makes a similar appeal to the choices of conscientious eaters in his assessment of which claims of alternative agriculture should be heeded (coming remarkably close to a defense of industrial agriculture at times). But if the Malthusian specter about which he writes–the specter of not enough food, depleted soil, and poisoned air and water–looms so near, it’s unclear that the problem can be rectified by the action of conscientious consumers. Are their actions supposed to make up for all of the actions of nonconscientious consumers? Analogously, if only those who can afford to buy high-quality food–an increasingly small group, given the dynamics of neoliberal capitalism (see chapter 8)–do so, what will it add up to? On its own terms, that is, the theory of change cannot amount to a huge shift in market demand. It is doubly problematic hat the theory of food system change neglects the millions of low-wage earners who work in the food system. Asking people to pay more for food gets it really wrong when it asks people who have paid with their lives, land, and labor to pay even more. Farmers and agricultural and food workers have to eat too, and yet, the incomes they receive are barely adequate to pay for cheap food, much less the more extolled variety. (151)

Here it’s important to understand what Guthman means when she refers to “alternative food.” She explains,

The alternative-food movement, as I discuss it here, first evolved to support farms with sustainable farming practices. As such, it created a set of institutions that link producers and consumers in close relationships, such as farmers markets, community-supported agricultural programs (CSAs), and farm-to-restaurant sales. I see these institution as distinct from those that date back to the late 1960s, when the New Left began to organize various food provisioning activities. Taking cues from earlier socialist and communal experiments, those various “co” institutions were explicitly noncapitalist in their organization and ownership, and sometimes were intended to model social forms of organization (source). They included communes where residents grew their own food; cooperative groceries where members pooled their money for food purchasing; and community gardens where neighbors farmed small plots of land together or in allotments. In contrast, the alternative-food movement, as I characterize it here, is less concerned with using food practices in the service of social change than with changing the food itself. The movement is not now nor was it ever radically transformative, although certain segments were most definitely anticorporate, and particular individuals in the movement may have such inclinations or may have participated in earlier more radical permutations (c.f.). (148)


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